The origins of "the Establishment": an etymological intrigue

Was the term really coined by the Spectator in 1955?

“The term ‘the Establishment,’ as it is now popularly used, was introduced into the common language and speech of England on September 23, 1955.” That is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The linguistic arbiter cites as its locus classicus a Spectator article written by the political journalist Henry Fairlie. The above quotation, however, was not weaned from the OED, but from Fairlie himself, writing in the New Yorker in 1968. The etymological memoir is simply entitled, “Evolution of a Term”.

Fairlie sets the scene:

In the week of September 23rd, there was only one possible subject for a political columnist to discuss: the acknowledgment by the Foreign Office of Burgess’s and Maclean’s defection. … As I sat in my room at 99 Gower Street, staring moodily at the blank piece of paper in my typewriter, the whole atmosphere of the Times during the days and months after the disappearance, the memory of hints and pressures to which I had paid only casual attention at the time, returned to me. I went and played a game of bar billiards at the Marlborough, the pub the Spectator used, and returned and wrote. I left in the evening, having turned in a column that appeared to me to be rather mediocre, but understandably so in the circumstances.

He ascribes the popularity of the term to the furious correspondence which followed. The term, he agrees, fulfilled a sorely felt need. The rest of the article deals with the proliferation of meaning that followed, particularly outside of Britain. Fairlie concedes that the term had existed in some form as long ago as 1841, when Ralph Waldo Emerson used it in “The Conservative”. It was bandied about for some years among his coterie, a group of “hungry young journalists, intent largely on enjoying ourselves at the expense of our elders and betters.” An occasional member of the group was the historian A J P Taylor, who “could be heard murmuring that he had used it some years earlier.”

“By October, 1957, in a special number of the Twentieth Century,” Fairlie notes, “Mr Taylor regarded the phrase with as much enthusiasm as if it were a bunch of sour grapes.”

He had every right. Here is the opening to Taylor’s article, retrieved this morning from the New Statesman archive, as it appeared on 29 August, 1953:

Trotsky tells how, when he first visited England, Lenin took him round London and, pointing out the sights, exclaimed: ‘That’s their Westminster Abbey! That’s their Houses of Parliament!’ Lenin was making a class, not a national, emphasis. By them he meant not the English, but the governing classes, the Establishment. And indeed in no other European country is the Establishment so clearly defined and so complacently secure. The Victorians spoke of the classes and the masses; and we still understand exactly what they meant. The Establishment talks with its own branded accent; eats different meals at different times; has its privileged system of education; its own religion, even, to a large extent, its own form of football. Nowhere else in Europe can you discover a man’s social position by exchanging a few words or breaking bread with him. The Establishment is enlightened; tolerant; even well-meaning. It has never been exclusive – drawing in recruits from outside, as soon as they are ready to conform to its standards and become respectable. There is nothing more agreeable in life than to make peace with the Establishment – and nothing more corrupting.

Sour grapes indeed.

In today’s New Statesman, Rafael Behr introduces a new definition of the Establishment. The dead-end bureaucracy which entrapped Joseph K today has “walls marked with Serco and Capita logos”. The guards wear “G4S uniforms.” Power no longer rests with visible institutions, in the settings they once did, he contends, but with the boards of companies very few of us have ever heard of, with quangos and hedge funds, arcane networks of friends and former ministerial advisors. “It no longer makes sense to speak of ‘the establishment’ as it did in the days when the lord chamberlain could strike obscenity off the stage.” As Messieurs Fairlie and Taylor would no doubt inform him, it never did.

A J P Taylor with Michael Foot on Taylor's 70th birthday in 1976. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage